Often, when I write these ranked lists, I get a newfound appreciation for bands and artists that I already knew I loved. Every once in a while, though, I come away from them disillusioned with why I liked a certain person or certain persons so much. That’s kind of the case with The Killers. Although I was never a superfan, I overestimated how much pleasure I would derive from a journey through their six albums, spurred by the recent-ish release of their latest, IMPLODING THE MIRAGE. Sure, I still like The Killers alright, but as I progressed, I found their millennial progression of U2’s arena pop-rock sound melded into a miasma of technically proficient, but generally detached, music. Do I hate The Killers? No. But if the band from Las Vegas, fronted by the popular Brandon Flowers, could have its history divided into eras, it would show two distinct ones. One, across their first three albums, could be defined by a relatively scrappy appreciation for new wave and pop that met millennial rock sensibilities. The other, across their second three albums, could be defined by a “loss of the plot,” a variation on the theme of bands and musicians and artists of any kind getting too big for their britches, or something, in any event losing their edge and/or emotional center in the process. That’s what happened to The Killers, but I’ll tell that story in some more detail now.
EDIT 8/19/21: Added PRESSURE MACHINE.
#7 — PRESSURE MACHINE (2021)
Favorite track: “West Hills”
An anecdote: I was listening to PRESSURE MACHINE in my home. My girlfriend came in from another room and asked “This is the new Killers album? It sounds like U2.” It was not a favorable comparison, which was understood, since we both don’t like U2. So yes, PRESSURE MACHINE, The Killers’ quick follow up to IMPLODING THE MIRAGE, facilitated by the full and semi-lockdown of COVID-19, continues their broad, bland arena rock tendencies. However, PRESSURE MACHINE isn’t as loud or blaring as, say, BATTLE BORN. It’s clearly intended to be a more “intimate” record, as a concept album about the kind of Utah small town that Flowers grew up in. There have also been comparisons to Springsteen, which is a bit painful because I can see it. But as my girlfriend lucidly pointed out, “There just aren’t any hooks on it.” PRESSURE MACHINE leverages interlude recordings of apparent residents of this romanticized small town, which are total filler and just serve to prolong the feeling that the album is meant to be “important;” it frequently references the opioid crisis, as one example. The music just doesn’t grab me at all, and the whole album slid out of my head and splatted on the floor each time I listened to it. Flowers apparently wrote the lyrics before the music, and I can tell; the words he utters feel out of step or unwieldy with the backing instrumentation. In case you couldn’t tell, I really didn’t like PRESSURE MACHINE, and as of this writing, it handily deserves the title of The Killers’ Worst Album.
#6 — BATTLE BORN (2012)
Favorite track: “Flesh and Bone”
Although the degradation of The Killers’ appeal to me couldn’t be charted entirely in chronological order, it essentially was up to the point of BATTLE BORN, the band’s fourth album. Their first three albums were made within the span of four years, while their next three would take 12 years to produce. BATTLE BORN was the first in this new “era,” as I described, coming four years after DAY & AGE. The time to ruminate on their place in the new pop rock pantheon didn’t do The Killers much good, because BATTLE BORN was an attempt to be Springsteen, U2, and, well, The Killers all at the same time. Opening with “Flesh and Bone” was, I guess, a good idea, because it’s definitely the record’s best track. It’s catchy, if corny (go figure, that’s The Killers’ M.O. on their biggest hits), but BATTLE BORN devolves into disinteresting soundscapes that, while broad, aren’t very deep. It’s not an actively unpleasant experience, but it’s the closest The Killers have yet gotten to a significant artistic failure.
#5 — IMPLODING THE MIRAGE (2020)
Favorite track: “Blowback”
The Killers’ latest is in the same vein of this new, relatively inauspicious era for the band, but it’s a much more pleasant, comprehensive listening experience. The tracks on IMPLODING THE MIRAGE are not singularly great, but the album is a bit more sensitive, something it has in common with its predecessor WONDERFUL WONDERFUL. The highly produced, again broad sound is nevertheless not as grating here. But if there’s a detriment to that effect, it’s that IMPLODING THE MIRAGE just lulled me into boredom a couple of times.
#4 — WONDERFUL WONDERFUL (2017)
Favorite track: “The Man”
“The Man” was The Killers’ last great hit single, and the album that spawned it, WONDERFUL WONDERFUL, is the best from the second era I keep referring to. “The Man” is groovier and more vital than much else The Killers’ put out for the entirety of the 2010s (and I guess the beginning of the ‘20s). That energy is not exported to the whole of WONDERFUL WONDERFUL, but if “The Man” is pure pop fun, it belies the greater vulnerability present on the record. It’s a more eclectic experience than The Killers’ other recent albums, and because of that, WONDERFUL WONDERFUL rates more favorably.
#3 — DAY & AGE (2008)
Favorite track: “Spaceman”
There’s an element of nostalgia influencing this list. The Killers were a perennial presence for me throughout middle and high school, so in a sense I kind of default to appreciating songs like “Spaceman” and albums like DAY & AGE. In hindsight, this was the record that began the “oversized” era, and not just because it was the last one before it. The attempts at soaring, stilling pop rock really hit a new high, in the sense that the sound was just bigger. But in that sense, it also paid off, because there were still some great hooks to be found, in songs like “Spaceman” and, to a lesser extent, “Human.” DAY & AGE is a fun record, but it doesn’t blend the angst and fun of The Killers’ previous two albums as well.
#2 — SAM’S TOWN (2006)
Favorite track: “When You Were Young”
With their second album, I suppose The Killers did encounter that fabled sophomore slump. But by extension, the rest of their career was to be a slump in comparison to their great first record (we’ll get to that in a second). Nevertheless, SAM’S TOWN is an interesting direction for the band to take following HOT FUSS. It’s rockier and a little, as Flowers deftly put it, more “masculine.” SAM’S TOWN, on The Killers’ early scale of Strokes and U2, is more Strokes. “When You Were Young,” in part for nostalgia reasons, is maybe my favorite Killers song, but it still holds up divorced from memories of ROCK BAND (2007) and an mp3 player filled with songs of angst. SAM’S TOWN, though, is probably the least familiar Killers album to me, and it may have actually benefited from that.
#1 — HOT FUSS (2004)
Favorite track: “Mr. Brightside”
But of course, I had to go with the album that gave us “Mr. Brightside” and “Somebody Told Me.” The former, especially, is an instant crowd-pleaser (myself included) at bars or the “clurb,” and it instantly makes me happy. “Somebody Told Me,” similarly, gets me mouthing or singing along, and the whole of the album from which they spawned, HOT FUSS, is a blend of youthful angst and optimism. “Jenny Was a Friend of Mine,” “All These Things That I’ve Done,” “Andy, You’re a Star;” these are great songs, and while the second half of HOT FUSS lags in relation, the overall experience of listening to the record is one of wonder. Wonder, in that I wondered how The Killers were able to make as nearly a perfect a song as “Mr. Brightside,” but also wonder in that I wondered, or perhaps rather regretted, that they weren’t able to sustain this energy past meteoric success. I think I’ve come to terms with the fact that The Killers is one of those bands that I listen to for the singles, and not much more. And I’m OK with that.